Video: Kids with severe disabilities taking mandatory standardized test

This video  shows children with profound disabilities taking a standardized test called the Florida Alternate Assessment as required by the state but opposed by many of their teachers and parents. And below is a letter from the principal of another school serving students with similar disabilities explaining why forcing these youngsters to take the test is wrong.

I’ve been writing a lot about this issue recently because it is one of the ugliest consequences of the current obsession with standardized testing in the era of test-based school reform and “accountability.” I wrote (here and here and here, for example) about Andrea Rediske, who fought a long battle with the Florida Department of Education over a requirement that her blind and brain-damaged son, Ethan, who also suffered from cerebral palsy, take state-mandated standardized tests. Rediske won a waiver for her son in 2013 but while he was dying earlier this year she was required to fill out paperwork proving that he couldn’t take the 2014 exam. Ethan passed away on Feb. 7. Legislation called the Ethan Rediske Act is awaiting action in the state legislature; it would make it easier for children with profound disabilities obtain waivers. I also have written about a boy named Michael, who was born without a complete brain yet still must take the Florida Alternate Assessment (here and here, for example).

Florida’s commissioner of education, Pam Stewart, declined to talk with me about this issue.

Michael and Ethan are not the only two children with severe disabilities who have to take inappropriate standardized tests for the sake of “accountability.” The video above shows students who attend Karen M. Siegel Academy in Lake Alfred. The video was done by the Florida Education Association, which has been vocal in its opposition to the state’s requirement that all children take some form of standardized test for accountability purposes. It opens with a statement from the FEA President Andy Ford, who states unequivocally that the Florida Alternate Assessment is unfairly used and most be stopped.

Here’s the letter to Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart from Mark Cashen, principal of Mt Herman Exceptional Student Center in Jacksonville. Stewart recently released what can only be described as a bizarre open letter to teachers defending the use of the alternate assessment and accusing critics of staging a “political attack” on her. Andrea Rediske wrote a letter to Stewart in response, and here is Cashen’s letter:

Commissioner Stewart:

As the principal of Mt Herman Exceptional Student Center in Jacksonville, I appreciate your effort to directly share your thoughts on assessments with our teachers through your letter to teachers dated March 3, 2014. Unfortunately, your letter had the unintended consequence of making the Mt. Herman teachers and support staff (myself included) feel unappreciated and disrespected. The reality is, however, our intentions in our questioning whether the Florida Alternate Assessment (FAA) is an appropriate measure of the growth for students with severe, profound and multiple disabilities are probably misunderstood.

I would like to take this opportunity to offer our point of view:

• In your letter you state “I have the deepest sympathy for any family and child who is suffering due to a disability or traumatic event and the utmost respect for the strength required of the family”

o In our experience, our families do not want our sympathy, they want our assurance that we will WORK with their son or daughter in order to help them grow into the best possible person they can become. Our sympathy would be an easy thing to give, but it is not very useful to our families.

o Our students do not “suffer” due to a disability or tragic event, they are simply accepted for who they are…they are somebodies’ son or daughter, somebodies’ brother or sister, they are somebodies’ favorite niece or nephew, they are loved and are part of a family…in our instructional process, we assess the students’ present skills, and we move on from there.

o You are absolutely right when you say that the families and children deserve the utmost respect for the strength required of the family; the parents of our Mt. Herman students are on a LIFELONG, never-ending journey of advocacy and care for their children.

• In your letter you state “Many of us, and many who have devoted their lives to ensuring equal rights for children with disabilities, can remember the days when a “public education” meant very little to some as children with special needs were ignored and treated as less than equal.”

o Many of us who are on this staff have a clear memory and understanding of this time in our history; some of us were beginning our teaching careers during the early years of PL 94-142. We have lived through the many reauthorizations, the implementation of the many policies and procedures, the audits upon audits…and we have always kept our focus on the important reason why this is all being done: our students. We do not want to go back!!!

• In your letter you state “It would be a moral outrage to deny that opportunity to any child based on any reason including special needs.”

o We unequivocally agree with you.

o What we found insulting in this statement is the perceived implication that we WOULD deny opportunities to our students because of our objection to the FAA as an appropriate measure of growth for our students.

o Furthermore, we agree with you that it is important that we measure progress so that we educate all children regardless of their circumstances. It is our considered opinion, however, that the FAA cannot measure progress in our students because it is not designed to do so. It is simply a reminder of all of the things that they CANNOT do…year after year…time after time…impossible task after impossible task…

• In your letter you state: “We cannot and should not return to the days where we tacitly ignore children with special needs by failing to ensure they are learning and growing as the result of teachers’ excellent work.”

o We absolutely agree with you!!! We disagree, however, on the method of ensuring that our students are learning.

o In addition, the perceived implication that it is our desire to return to those days did not sit well with us.

During the 12/13 administration of the FAA, the Mt. Herman teachers maintained logs on how long it actually took to administer the assessment to our students. The data showed that it took the equivalent of 8.3 WEEKS to complete the assessment; we view this as 8.3 weeks of instructional time lost…with NO return on the investment. We are firm believers that students’ growth should be assessed, and that the results of the assessments should inform educators about the next steps to be taken, the adjustments to be made to the instruction, or the remediation necessary to offer the student. In all of the years that the FAA has been administered to our severely cognitively impaired students, many in wheelchairs with extremely limited use or control of their extremities, a number of them blind, deaf or deaf/blind, some with feeding tubes, many experiencing multiple seizures, and occasionally minimally conscious, we have not gained one piece of useful information about our students.

The FAA is not a bad assessment for MOST of the students for whom it was designed…it is actually very clever. It IS, however, not an appropriate assessment for our very small population of students. In our opinion, a portfolio type of assessment is the most appropriate method of assessment for our students.

We appreciated the inclusion in your letter of the number of extraordinary exemptions requested and the number granted. I will confess that we have never requested an extraordinary exemption on behalf of our students because of the overwhelming paperwork involved and the likelihood that the request would be denied no matter what documentation was presented. I do not think that it should be “easy” to request an Extraordinary Exemption, but I do think that a common sense approach should be employed when considering students with severe and profound disabilities.

We also find it a bit insulting to be told that all children must be assessed because of NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND. OUR reality is that, in all of the efforts to be correct and compliant, our very small population of students is actually being left behind…and someone should care about that.

We appreciate the enormity of your job as Commissioner of Education, but we do ask for a little bit of your attention to the design of a more appropriate assessment for our extraordinary students.

Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

Mark Cashen
Principal
Mt. Herman

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | March 12